By Jennifer Martin
"I joined the Navy to see the world, really."
In March 1941, Walter Gafford had no way of knowing what would happen at Pearl Harbor nine months later. Or that he would be there to see it.
"We had 2300 folks killed that day."
Gafford was aboard the USS Maryland, when the Japanese struck.
"It happened so suddenly. It was a sneak attack. By the time I got my clothes on and went out on the deck, the Oklahoma was rolling over. It had 8 torpedoes in it."
Crew members of the Maryland went to the aid of the other ships in distress. Many were sinking, others were on fire.
"The harbor caught on fire. The side of the Oklahoma was burning. And Ford Island was on the right side of us and it was on fire. And the Arizona was behind us and an 1800 pound bomb had hit it and gone straight down the magazine. That's what blew it up so. All that fire, everything burning. It was awful."
But as awful as it was, Gafford says what lay ahead was even worse.
"Pearl Harbor was so fast. You didn't have time to get scared. But Okinowa, all the suicide planes. My hair would stand up on my head. I could feel it standing up I was so scared."
When the Maryland went to Okinowa, it had been more than four years since the Pearl Harbor attacks. The crew had seen operations in Saipan and Leyte. But nothing could prepare them for the kamikaze pilots they would encounter on the Japanese island.
"There were these suicide bombers and they were hitting these ships and there were people in the water. Not one place but all over. At night, we had 1500 ships there. And at night when they get to firing, it looked like the whole world was on fire."
One of the kamikazes hit the ship. 53 people were killed. The constant fear and threat of attacks proved to be too much. Gafford left the Navy on a medical discharge in February 1946.
He is proud of his service, but remains humble. "I'm glad I done what I done. But the only heroes are the ones that are dead."
WLBT 3 - Fox 40
715 South Jefferson Street